Three Tips to Help Doctors Go Beyond “Book Smart”

Last Updated on January 8, 2019 by

Early in my career as a surgeon, one of my technicians pulled me aside and told me a patient wanted to talk to me: “He wants to know why he’s getting an eye procedure.” It seemed obvious to me, so I explained the patient’s diagnosis and strolled into the operating room.

When I entered, a nurse, now prepping the patient, said, “It is his right eye.” I carefully reviewed the patient’s chart and laid out the situation with as much clarity as I could muster: “Mr. Tomasi, you are here for your right eye injection. Your diabetes is causing your blood vessels to become leaky. Fluid is accumulating in your retina and destroying your vision. The medicine we are going to inject helps dry out fluid and will improve your vision.”

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The patient simply responded, “I am not Mr. Tomasi.”

Medical professionals all tend to come from similar backgrounds. We’re academically driven, have an eye for detail, and — more often than not — we’re workaholics. But all of that academic training can only take you so far. Even if you’ve got all the facts right, it’s all for naught if you don’t know which patient is which.

Thanks to that one mistake, I’ve put new procedures in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Now, whenever anyone walks into our clinic, they are asked their name and date of birth from every person who sees them, including clerks, interns, residents, fellows, technicians, nurses — and me. We review their charts and images to perform a just-in-time quality assurance check. We even have patients point to the eye that we are going to perform the procedure on.

Newly minted medical school graduates know all of the academic details they need to succeed in their specialty — and then some. But what’s not always taught are the strategies that can create a more streamlined, and safer, patient experience. Here are three tips for doctors of all ages looking to go beyond mere book smarts.

Practice awareness.

The harder you work, the more susceptible you’ll be to tunnel vision. Work proactively to make sure you don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Daily meditation and mindfulness exercises are two great ways to give yourself space to think beyond the day-to-day issues and avoid getting overwhelmed by the details.

Spot errors early.

The wrong number on a chart or the wrong date for an appointment can have dramatic ripple effects that impact real people who have placed their trust in your hands. Even if an error seems small, don’t let it slip — double-check it and do something about it.

Learn from people outside the medical field.

Some of my most important lessons have come from talking and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds. I have learned how to lower risk through process management from electrical and safety engineers, how to be a better diagnostician from visual artists, and how to empathize more with patients from members of the clergy.

Medical school will provide you with all the subject matter expertise you need. But almost everyone you meet will have insights from their own personal and professional lives that can inform your work.

I’d encourage medical students and recent graduates to consider these tips, but that doesn’t mean they become irrelevant for those of us later in our careers. In fact, it may be quite the opposite — experience has a tendency to blind us to the lessons we can learn from those who come after us.

It’s an exciting time to be a medical student. The rise of technology in medical education — and throughout the medical field — has given us unprecedented access to detailed information and real-time, hands-on training that can take the place of some of the rote memorization and reading that often characterizes medical school. But nothing, not even the most powerful technology, can replace the lessons the books don’t teach.

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